Rishi Sunak's tricky week amid the cost of living crisis

Credit: PA

Since Rishi Sunak became the Conservative MP for Richmond in North Yorkshire in May 2015, his rise has been rapid. His first government job was Local Government Minister, then Chief Secretary to the Treasury and, before too long, Chancellor of the Exchequer.

His response to the pandemic, particularly through the furlough scheme, has been widely praised. He became the favourite to become the next Prime Minister. This week he hit a real bump in the road, perhaps for the first time.

Wednesday's spring statement was not initially due to be a big event, but had been given added urgency by the growing cost of living crisis. To help tackle that, the Chancellor announced a 5p per litre cut to fuel duty, and raised the threshold before you start having to pay National Insurance.

That second policy in particular was welcomed in the Commons by Conservative colleagues in our region like Matt Vickers (Stockton South) and Kevin Hollinrake (Thirsk & Malton).

But Labour's Emma Lewell-Buck (South Shields) accused the Chancellor of a "continued failure to protect the hardest hit" and Andy McDonald (Middlesbrough) similarly bemoaned his decision not to increase benefits in line with current rates of inflation.

Families we spoke to in the North East on Wednesday told us that the Chancellor had not done enough to help them, and the front pages of Thursday's newspapers largely agreed.

The Chancellor's carefully-cultivated brand then took a bit of battering. It emerged that he'd used a Sainsbury's worker's car for a photo op promoting the fuel duty cut. Asked in an interview about seeing prices rise, Sunak said: "we all have different breads in my house" and was accused of being out of touch. He also faced tough questions over his wife's links to a company that has continued to operate in Russia after the invasion of Ukraine.

The war is of course one of the factors behind the current economic pressures. The Office for Budget Responsibility has predicted that people in the UK face the biggest drop in living standards since the 1950s. Now we'll find out what Rishi Sunak is really made of.

Elsewhere this week, the government announced that 555 subpostmasters who won a court case against the Post Office in 2019 over its faulty computer system would get more compensation.

North Durham Labour MP Kevan Jones secured an urgent question on it in the Commons on Tuesday. He argued for interim payments for "people in abject poverty now", and for families of those who have died to be eligible for payouts. Business minister Paul Scully responded: "Yes, we will absolutely work with estates."

City of Durham Labour MP Mary Kelly Foy led a Westminster Hall debate on Tuesday on the need for school rebuilds. She highlighted "flooded classrooms, overcrowded schools, rising damp and poor ventilation". Rachael Maskell (York Central, Labour) provided a startling account of conditions at All Saints Roman Catholic School in York.

She said "I witnessed holes in the floor of the school gym" and "the dining facility is so small that each child can spend only six and half minutes at lunch."